July 1, 2005

Unstable childhood, family tragedies no hindrance to Grossmont College commencement speaker

Re-entry student now in classes at UCSD

EL CAJON – As Grossmont College graduate Dawn Monday drives to her classes at UCSD these days, passing the tony shops and elegant homes overlooking the pristine La Jolla shoreline, she can’t help but marvel how far removed she is from the life of her childhood years.

Her mother, just 15 when Monday was born, was placed in juvenile hall as a chronic runaway. When released, she never returned home for her infant daughter, and Monday was left in the care of her grandmother in Logan Heights, a blighted community overcome by poverty, drugs and violent street gangs.

“I went to several elementary schools in San Diego because we moved quite a bit,” said Monday, now 38 and a resident of Lemon Grove. “I had lots of aunts and uncles and family members were always sharing their homes. We finally settled in low-income apartments in southeast San Diego and by then, it was just me, another aunt and my grandmother. I was going to the School of Creative (and Performing) Arts, then left and went to Madison High School.”

By then a 15-year-old sophomore, Monday’s life took a dramatic turn when “out of the blue” her mother appeared at the door to take her away to live in the Bay Area.

Dawn Monday delivers her commencement speech to fellow students at Grossmont College.

“I was terrified,” she said. “I didn’t want to move. But I had no choice. One day, I was living in San Diego with my grandmother, and the next day, I was gone.”

Monday’s new life consisted of living with her mother, a stepfather and two step-siblings in a decaying, crime-ridden neighborhood in Oakland she describes as “way worse” than Southeast San Diego. The high school she only occasionally attended that year was notorious as the worst in the city and Monday’s grades plummeted. She began smoking marijuana, even on the city bus she rode with her classmates to get to school.

“My mom didn’t care if I smoked weed because she did, too,” Monday said. “I started cutting classes a lot to hang out with my friends. My mom and her then-boyfriend were constantly fighting and when things got really bad, she would take us kids and leave. One time, we wound up in a homeless shelter in San Pedro.”

Over a period of two years, Monday attended five high schools as life with mom continued its chaotic spin. Out of desperation, while on the road after yet another of her mother’s domestic squabbles, Monday slipped into a phone booth and called an aunt in the community of Fairfield, between Sacramento and San Francisco.

“I begged her to take me in and she agreed,” Monday said. “My mom got on a bus and left.”

Living with her aunt and uncle in Fairfield had a stabilizing effect and Monday managed to finish high school. But she wasn’t able to escape her mother, who showed up at her high school graduation, proclaiming it wasn’t fair that she was living “like a queen,” while she and the younger children were getting by on scraps. Feeling guilty, she left with her mother to live in Stockton, where she got a job at a fast-food eatery.

It wasn’t until the age of 19 that Monday finally escaped her mother’s grasp. Pregnant, she was determined to provide a better life for her child. She got a job as a long-distance operator, but was forced to abandon that line of work after developing carpal tunnel syndrome. A supervisor at AT&T helped her get an interview at a bank in Walnut Creek and to her amazement, she was hired. As the years progressed, she was promoted to the position of personal banker, but surrounded by co-workers with college degrees, feelings of inadequacy lingered.

“I didn’t really care for my job,” she said. “I didn’t understand the world of finance — I knew how to do my job, but that was it.”

She decided to return to school at age 33 and enrolled at San Joaquin College.

“I was scared to death. It seemed like everyone around me was young and I thought I was going to be the dumbest person in class,” she said.

But a perfect score on her first college term paper and praise from the instructor about her writing proved an epiphany.

“I realized I could do it. I earned A’s in every one of my classes and I was thrilled,” she said.

A mother of two by this time and still single, Monday decided to move back to San Diego to be closer to her family and to continue her education. In 2002, she enrolled at Grossmont at the recommendation of a cousin. About the same time, she became guardian to two teenage cousins. Their crack-addicted mother had relinquished their care to her grandmother – the same one who had raised Monday years ago – but ailing health put a crimp in that arrangement. So Monday found herself starting at Grossmont with four children in her care.

She credits excellent counselors, instructors and student services for helping her stay on course, even when her carpal tunnel became so aggravated last year that holding a pen caused excruciating pain.

“I thought I was going to have to drop out and I went to one of my instructors, crying. She directed me to DSPS (Disabled Student Program and Services) and I was able to learn how to use Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a voice-recognition computer program,” she said.

In addition to the assistive technology, Monday is grateful for the guidance she received from Dr. Theresa “T” Ford, a counselor and instructor at Grossmont College who planted the seed that’s blossomed this summer with Monday now attending UCSD. As the student speaker earlier this month at Grossmont College’s commencement, Monday was effusive in her praise for her mentor.

“Upon my arrival on this campus, I had the privilege of being guided, taught and counseled by one of the most phenomenal women of our time,” she said in her address. “She is not only a counselor, but an instructor who teaches with genuine and true passion. It was her faith in me that gave me the courage to apply to UCSD. I would like to thank you, Dr. Ford. Your faith in my abilities is more precious than gold.”

A captivated audience listened to Monday’s heartfelt message of perseverance in the face of neglect and poverty, addiction and tragedy.

“I no longer lack self-confidence, and education has helped me to replace fear with expectation,” the honors graduate told the crowd. “Today, I am grateful for the opportunity to break generational cycles by being the first in my family to attend a four-year university. Coming from a background where poverty, gang affiliation, drug addition, and prison sentences are the norm, I stand today to show my children another way.”

As for her professional aspirations, Monday wants to help troubled youth.

“I’ve been helping kids in my family for a long, long time,” she said recently. “Lots of my aunts and uncles were addicted to drugs and over the years to this day, their children have turned to me for help. I have cousins who are pimps and lost a brother to the streets. He was selling drugs and ended up in prison for four years on a kidnapping charge. Shortly after he got out, he got into a confrontation with a stranger in a store and when he was leaving, he got jumped and one of the people stabbed him. He was a West Coast Crip and had this hard mentality, I guess. He tried to get away from that, but it wouldn’t let him go.

“I want my children to have better. I don’t want them to go through what my family goes through. I’m just so thankful that the faculty and staff at Grossmont College have opened up the avenues so that I can do something to change young people’s lives in a meaningful way.”

Summer classes are offered at Grossmont College located at 8800 Grossmont College Drive in El Cajon, and Cuyamaca College at 900 Rancho San Diego Parkway in Rancho San Diego. To apply and enroll online, go to www.grossmont.edu or www.cuyamaca.edu.

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